There is a necessary divide between political philosophy and political science. Politics as a philosophy examines political concepts as pure abstractions detached from the actual practice of politics. It helps to understand democracy, populism, and liberalism as concepts. But politics as a science examines its practice in the real world. Political science relies on data, anecdotes, and history. It becomes difficult to distinguish the two because they are interrelated. Abstract concepts need real world examples to demonstrate their authenticity. Political science, on the other hand, depends on theories and big picture ideas to test or examine.
Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction in the writing between the philosopher and the scientist of politics. Too often my blog focuses on the theory rather than the practice of politics. Examples can become caricatures rather than real people who have real motivations. Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump appear in works of political theory as stock examples to demonstrate concepts like authoritarianism or populism. Their motivations are lost in their presence as a symbol. Theorists have a way of transforming anecdotal examples into tokens. They lose their ability to ground a theory in the real world and their examples become yet another abstraction.
It helps to immerse oneself in the unfamiliar to reexamine big picture ideas in real world examples. The book Campaigns and Voters in Developing Democracies: Argentina in Comparative Perspective is an examination of the 2015 Argentine Presidential Election from multiple perspectives. Noam Lupu, Virginia Oliveros, and Luis Schiumerini assembled some of the strongest scholars of Latin American politics to offer a deep dive into Argentina. Readers of politics should instantly recognize contributor Steven Levitsky who has coauthored Competitive Authoritarianism and How Democracies Die. Levitsky’s coauthor is María Victoria Murillo. She is less well known than Levitsky, but a significant name in her own right whose research on Argentina appears regularly in important journals. She is the lead author of this chapter rather than Levitsky and deserves credit for the insights of their work. Kenneth F. Greene is best known for his work on Mexico. He offers his thoughts in a chapter called “Dealigning Campaign Effects in Argentina in Comparative Perspective” where he offers insights partly based on his past research of Mexico.
The book is based on a panel election study in Argentina. A panel election study surveys voters over time to understand how their attitudes change as a campaign evolves. It requires significant commitment from researchers. It is difficult to get survey results from respondents. A panel election study goes back to respondents more than once. Some respondents might respond to the first survey but fail to respond the next time, so a large sample is required to ensure a sufficient number of respondents are retained throughout the survey. These intensive pioneering studies have been used in the United States to understand voter behavior but have largely been absent in Latin America. The editors emphasize Latin American elections are understudied. Among Latin American countries, regular election studies have only been conducted in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. These countries represent about a quarter of Latin American democracies. Panel election studies are even more rare. Brazil and Mexico are the only Latin American countries where a panel election study had been conducted before the 2015 Argentine study.
Argentina is ideal for panel election data. Its presidential election features a runoff election where the top two candidates of the first-round meet in a second round. The details of the election are explained throughout the book; however, Ernesto Calvo explains it best in his chapter “Down to the Wire: Argentina’s 2015 Campaign.” Daniel Scioli (37.08%) led Mauricio Macri (34.15%) after the first round. But it was Macri who won the second round in a close election (51.34% to 48.66%) over Scioli. Multiple authors show how the institutional design of Argentine Presidential Elections influence its outcome. The survey data brings to light how voters behave under these conditions.
The data from the panel election survey was sliced in multiple ways by different scholars as they found different ways to analyze the election. The panel survey allowed scholars to understand not just who they supported but why. Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro and Matthew S. Winters wrote the chapter “Strategic Voting in a Two-Round, Multi-Candidate Election.” But the strategies for voters began before the official first-round because a primary election was incorporated in 2009. None of the major candidates faced significant primary challengers, but it offered a yardstick for performance in the first-round that influenced strategic voting. Ernest Calvo offers a picture of the influence of the primary in his description of the Presidential Election, but Weitz-Shapiro and Winters offer another layer. They describe how the rules of the Presidential election caused many voters to base their vote on calculations about who had the best chance to make the second-round or for supporters of Scioli, an opportunity to avoid a second-round altogether. Their analysis captures the imagination because run-off elections are designed to eliminate strategic votes. The first round is designed to avoid concerns about wasted votes because every voter can choose between the final two candidates. Nonetheless, Argentine voters became possibly more strategic in their vote than American or British voters in simple first past the post elections.
Macri was not expected to win the Presidency. It is impossible to understand the meaning behind the survey data without any reflection on the context of the election itself. María Victoria Murillo and Steven Levitsky place the 2015 in an historical context. They spend a significant part of their chapter on the rise of the Kirchners, their success, and their decline as a political force. The 2019 Argentine Presidential Election has brought back Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a political force, but the 2015 election was largely a referendum on the state of the economy and her response as President. Peronism has a long tradition in Argentina. But its strength has brought about divisions within its political tradition. The Kirchners are not simply the heirs of Juan Perón. The Kirchners have established their own political tradition.
The 2015 election divided the Peronist vote between Daniel Scioli and Sergio Massa. Combined they won 58% of the vote. But Macri was able to capture a large part of the Massa vote because Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had alienated part of the Peronist voter base. Her support for Scioli was an asset, but also an obstacle to consolidate the Peronist vote. Consequently, Macri’s mandate became less about structural reform than a mandate for better performance. The election did not reflect a rightward shift in ideology so much as a desire for a change in leadership out of a hope for better execution. And Macri remained popular so long as his reforms were successful, but he faced an inevitable defeat at the polls in 2019 as the economic challenges proved overwhelming. Voters were not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His support was based largely on an ability to deliver results.
Murillo and Levitsky explain the economic context behind the support for the Kirchners. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, they were beneficiaries of a commodities boom. And like Chávez, they also used the economic wealth to fuel redistributive programs to expand their support. However, the economic basis of these policies depended on unrealistic economic conditions to persist. Argentinians face a political challenge to reassess their economic expectations until they can rebuild their economy on a more stable foundation for growth.
The book begins with a reflection on the difference between campaigns and elections in developing and developed democracies. Noam Lupu, Virginia Oliveros, and Luis Schiumerini bring to light how democracy is different in a country like Argentina than the developed democracies of Europe or the United States. For example, Latin American politics in recent years has focused on the general weakness of its political parties. Some of the authors in this collection were also featured in Scott Mainwaring’s Party Systems in Latin America. Mainwaring has long championed the concept of Party System Institutionalization. The weakness of political parties in Latin America and their fragmentation has been a recurrent theme in the political thought among its scholars. Mauricio Macri is yet another example where a Presidential candidate built a new political party to erase the negative implications of previous opposition parties. It would be unthinkable for an American Presidential candidate to compete unless they won the nomination of the Democrats or Republicans. The election of AMLO in Mexico is a perfect example where a candidate wins election after they reject established political parties and create their own.
But it is impossible to read this book and fail to recognize the similarities between Argentina and established democracies. American elections are often a referendum on the state of the economy. The 2015 Argentine election was based on similar motivations. Institutional design also influences voter behaviors. Indeed, the institutional design of the political system likely has a greater influence on voter behavior than the maturity of its democratic traditions or the modernization of its economy. Lijphardt is the most prominent of many scholars who have examined how institutional design affects behaviors of voters and leaders in democratic political systems. In this respect, Argentina is no different than the democracies of Europe or the United States.
Whenever many voices are brought together to offer different perspectives and analysis, it is not possible to reflect on every aspect of the book. I have left out the contributions of many scholars from this review. Some of those chapters may prove to have more influence than the chapters I chose to highlight. But this work is not important as a collection of individual chapters. The book offers an examination of contemporary politics in Argentina. Its chapters build upon one another to offer a complete picture of its political environment. The first three chapters walk the reader through the larger theoretical picture, the political context of Argentina, and a close examination of the campaign. From there the subsequent chapters make sense as they examine different aspects. The book is comprised of chapters from many different authors but should be read in its entirety rather than as distinct parts.
Theorists have a lot to learn from a deep examination of Argentine politics. Last week Takis Pappas and I discussed populism and liberal democracy on my podcast. It was impossible to discuss the historical arc of populism without mention of Juan Perón. Argentina continues to offer a laboratory for the scientist and the philosopher of politics. The 2019 election brought Cristina Kirchner back to power as Vice President. But the economic circumstances are different from the past. Populist politics will have to deal with economic realities. These challenges are not unlike those democracies around the world will face as countries manage massive burdens of public debt that was necessary to overcome a global pandemic. Indeed, democracies around the world will likely find populist politics make it difficult to handle their own economic realities.
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